Monday, September 29, 2014

Summer Reading 2014

A parade of eclectic books came through my life in the last two months.

Before a long trip, most reasonable people will be seen shopping for the trip and packing their bags. Me? I was in a reading frenzy, trying to finish all my library books so I could safely return them before I went away.

The last of my pile was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. This is a novelist's memoir written with deep feeling and a talent for articulating things that are very hard to articulate. Winterson was adopted as a 6 week old baby. Her mother cruelly told her that she "picked the wrong crib" implying that the adoption was a mistake. The mother's religious fanaticism and depression made for a horrible home life. Books were not allowed in the house. But Winterson found them anyway and against all odds, went on to go to Oxford and earn a degree in literature, writing an award-winning novel at the age of 24. “Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.” 

This Spring, I won a giveaway on Goodreads, an advance copy of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism
by Jeremy Rifkin. What a title! This might be the most interesting book I've read in a while, and the hardest to read- partly because of the dense writing but mostly because economics is not at all my field of expertise. I read it as I would a textbook, over a semester, digesting a chapter at a time and taking copious notes. 

In a nutshell, what Rifkin is proposing is that the current capitalist system is on the decline. It will soon be replaced by the collaborative commons which is an economic system based on social entrepreneurs, shared economy and crowdfunding. We're already seeing more of that- think couchsurfing, kickstarter, zip cars etc. My notes on the book are here. I really wish the writing was tighter and more accessible, and that the book was better edited but if you like cerebral books, it is completely worth your time.

Just before we left for India, our library had their annual fund-raising book sale. Gently used, donated books were being sold for a couple of dollars so I rummaged around and bought a few. Over the two long-haul flights to India, I read an old but goodie, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie. I think I read this collection once every decade or so and they are always fun.

In India, from within the depths of a junk drawer in a parental home, I rescued a yellowing paperback, The Way Through The Woods by Colin Dexter. It is the 10th Inspector Morse novel. I'm an ardent watcher of the Inspector Morse detective series on TV (we've watched it on PBS and Netflix) but this was the first time I read one of the novels that the series is based on. I give the novel 2 thumbs up for the literary references and for bringing the irritable, intellectual Morse to life.

Over at my parents' home, I read Myth = Mithya A Handbook of Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattanaik. I've read and heard and seen stories from Hindu mythology- Ramayana, Mahabharata- all my life, but this fascinating little book was full of aha moments for the ancient Indian interpretation of everything from cosmology to cultural mores. 

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar was a fluffy and quick read. The book is written in the form of a fictional memoir of a Rajput princess. She talks about her life in her childhood home (a palace) and life in her married household (another palace), cloistered in a women's compound (zenana). The princess describes rituals related to health and beauty, providing several recipes for everything from a masoor (lentil) face mask to pancakes that aid lactation. Descriptions of the hours-long elaborate baths left me exhausted and thankful for my 5 minute showers and single bottle of shampoo+ conditioner! Obviously, most of us don't have the luxury, time or even the inclination to make a career out of pampering ourselves. But the book is a nice reminder of relaxing beauty rituals that take no more than a few pantry ingredients. The book is worth looking at for the sumptuous historic photographs alone.

In India, there was another novelty- daily newspapers delivered to the door. We don't subscribe to newspapers here, preferring to read online news if and when we feel like it. But I got a daily dose of the Times of India and Mumbai Mirror and Bombay Times, with its unsettling mix of brutal rape reports and inane celebrity gossip. I got to read comics and do sudoku and crosswords every day (I'm good at the former but frustratingly bad at the latter.)

Since my return home, I've been catching up on the New Yorker magazines from the last 2 months. This article about Vandana Shiva was very illuminating and it is published online in its entirety: Seeds of DoubtAn activist’s controversial crusade against genetically modified crops by Michael Specter. 

And I started reading another book sale find, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. This book won rave reviews but personally I'm not enjoying the writing and the story is not very engaging either. I'm donating this book back for next year's sale. 

The next book on the pile is Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver.

What are you reading these days?

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Koli Cooking Class, and my New Craft Blog

Hello, friends! I just got back from a long trip to India, and even in my foggy, bleary-eyed, jet-lagged state, I'm missing this little blog very much.

Our weeks in warm, rainy Mumbai were spent catching up with close family and friends. But I took one morning to treat myself to a rather special experience- a cooking class taught by Anjali of Anna Parabrahma. The Koli community are the native fisher folk of Mumbai and for years, Anjali has been blogging about her native Koli culture and food. She has now taken it a step further, organizing tours of seafood markets and teaching Koli cooking classes. For those who don't eat seafood, she has a special Koli yet Veg class that focuses on vegetarian specialties from her community. How could I resist?

And that's how I found myself in Anjali's bright, pleasant and immaculately tidy kitchen one Friday morning, cooking with her and her beautiful friend Gauri. The morning started with a cup of masala chai, snacks and a chat with Anjali and her wonderful Dad, who is himself a good cook.

Over three hours, we made five dishes. All the while, the conversation flowed easily and I was amazed at how knowledgeable and passionate Anjali is about regional Indian home cooking. And she has a natural instinct for how to create a well-balanced meal where the flavors and textures of the different dishes complement each other perfectly.

The main course for the meal was Vala che bhirda. Sprouted vaal (a variety of beans) are cooked in a coconut curry. My grandmother made this dish often and I make it myself but every family/community makes it a different way. The koli way is to skip the tadka (tempering) and use their savory, full-bodied koli masala (made with over two dozen ingredients) instead.

The second dish was kokum saar. Kokum is a tangy coastal tropical fruit, and saar is not quite a soup or beverage or curry but perhaps a hybrid of those three. Anjali talks about kokum saar in this touching post. I've used kokum quite a bit but never in the form of kokum agal (extract) which Anjali uses to make the saar conveniently. Later, I asked my parents about it and they bought me my own jug of kokum agal to bring back. The radish and jaggery in this saar make it irresistible and this dish was my favorite of the day.

The other two side dishes we made were a fiery potato onion bhaaji and a garlic chutney. Finally, Anjali kneaded fresh dough and expertly made rice rottis- flatbreads made with whole rice flour.

With some freshly steamed rice and papads that are not in the picture, the whole thaali came together. I savored every morsel in happiness and gratitude.

More pictures of my experience are on Anjali's blog. I blissfully left with a bag of goodies from Anjali- dried vaal, rice papads, chai masala, malvani masala and peanut paak.

And of course, I made sure I bought a bag of koli masala for my own use here. An expertly made masala is worth its weight in gold. By just adding a spoonful or two, you can turn everyday ingredients- vegetables, lentils- into a special meal with no hassle at all.

Taking a cooking class while on vacation was great fun in so many ways- I had a memorable experience, learned something new, made warm connections and got some edible souvenirs to bring back. I'm going to try and do this on every trip I take.

I was talking about vacation cooking classes with a dear American friend who will be living in Bangalore for a month next summer. Does anyone happen to know of good, informal cooking classes in Bangalore? She and her husband would love to take one.

Have you ever taken a cooking class, whether on vacation or not?

***     ***     ***

If you've been visiting this blog for any length of time, you know how knitting, crochet, sewing and quilting has been slowly but surely encroaching on this blog-formerly-known-as-a-food-blog? I never wanted to start another blog for the crafty stuff because keeping up with one blog is hard enough and keeping up with two would be sheer madness. But you know you should never say never.

My sister happens to be wonderfully creative and talented at sewing and other crafts, and also runs a small, independent sewing business. When I visited her a couple of months ago,  I started pestering her into starting a blog to chronicle her projects. She turned right around and talked me into joining her- so to make a long story short, we're now blogging together about our sewing and craft projects at our new blog, Cottons & Chai. If you're so inclined, I invite you to go take a look.

Our goal is to post twice a week, usually on Mondays and Thursdays. Of course the minute we started the blog, I promptly ran off on vacation and left poor sis to do most of the posting so far. Kashmira has posted free tutorials (like this one for a baby toy), craft ideas (potato stamps shaped like cute produce) sewing book reviews, upcycling ideas and original patterns for purchase (like this hair organizer; she made one for Lila and we loved it so much that I insisted she write a pattern).

A soft and crinkly toy for tiny, curious hands
This flower organizer hangs in the bathroom and helps to corral
Lila's umpteen hair bows and clips
I've posted a quilt I made and a quick birthday gift idea.

Going forward, I'll post my sewing and craft projects on Cottons & Chai and leave One Hot Stove to deal with food and books!

I'll see you next Monday as usual- no, it won't be a recipe post, but I'll tell you about lots of interesting books I've been reading. How have you all been? What's new in your world? 

Monday, August 04, 2014

The List: July 2014

July started on a high note with a week-long vacation and well, time seems to speed up in summer because here we are in August already.

Cooking & Baking

A big bowl of spinach dip got made two or three times this month for different gatherings. This is the recipe, and there's not much fuss involved: the spinach is the frozen kind, there's no cooking needed and the chipotle can be swapped out for something else like taco spice or hot sauce if needed. Served with veggie sticks or tortilla chips, this dip is a crowd pleaser; it makes a lot too.

We got together with friends to watch the World Cup and I made magic cake for dessert using this recipe. Magic cake gets its name from one cake batter that magically separates in the oven into a dense lower layer and a custard like upper layer. We loved it (so much that I forgot to take a picture) and if flans and custards are your thing, you'll probably love it too.

Reading several books, mostly from the kid lit and teen lit genre. These are all good and quick reads.

Image: Goodreads

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Eleven year old Margaret moves from New York City to a New Jersey suburb and meets a whole new group of friends. The book tells a sweet and genuine story of a girl grappling with lots of changes in her life, in her body and in trying to figure out the role of religion in her life. Blume published this book in 1970 and the subject matter was considered very bold and frank for its time- it still remains a rather controversial book. But it made me nostalgic for my own set of girlfriends from middle and high school!

Image: Goodreads

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie with illustrations by Ellen Forney (she of the graphic memoir Marbles). This is the dark and funny coming of age story of a Native American teen. Junior has survived childhood illness to become a bright budding cartoonist. He lives on an Indian reservation, plagued by poverty, despair and alcoholism, and rather bravely leaves the local school to start attending the all-white high school in the next town. “I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,' I said. 'By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.” 

Image: Goodreads

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes. This is a simple, powerful and rather heartbreaking story. Wanda wears the same faded blue dress to school but claims to have a hundred dresses at home; the other girls at school tease her mercilessly about it. Then Wanda unwittingly teaches them a lesson about friendship and about doing the right thing.

Image: Goodreads

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6) by Alan Bradley. I continued my indifferent reading of this series. Of all the books, this one has the weakest mystery but is full of emotional ups and downs as Flavia grapples with the return of her mother, the mother who went missing when she was just an infant.

Image: Goodreads

Among Lila's favorite books this month are Bear Wants More and Bear's New Friend, both by Karma Wilson with adorable illustrations by Jane Chapman. For the first time, Lila is enjoying books that are several pages long with a definite story line. The stories are written in rhyming, sing song fashion and fun to read.

We went to a gently-used book sale and found over a dozen classics for Lila. The one she's immediately in love with is Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney, about a Llama's first day at nursery school. This is such a darling book and you can't help feeling a pang of empathy for the dear little llama struggling with separation anxiety. Don't worry, it all works out in the end.

Lila's had a windfall of books this month. Just yesterday, a dear friend sent Lila a book gift that she bought in India- Mala's Silver Anklets by Annie Besant, from Tulika Publishers. Mala likes to sneak up and scare her grandma, her little brother and even the mailman. Until she gets silver anklets and that bells the cat, so to speak. A delightful story with adorable illustrations by Nancy Raj.

Watching the second season of Orange is the new Black.

And I took a break from my usual diet of murder mysteries (Midsomer Murders, Poirot etc.) and watched a very interesting documentary called Particle Fever. It chronicles the thrilling search for the Higgs Boson particle in the Large Hadron Collider. I watch murder mysteries as a mild form of escapism, to spend an hour in some quaint English village. But truthfully, the documentary about particle physics and the quest to understand the structure of the universe was the ultimate escape as I looked around my living room and pondered- what does all this mean, anyway?

What have you been eating, reading, watching this July? 

I have some unexpected travel coming up so posting will be sporadic over the next few 2 months. I may even be unable to post altogether but will be back soon enough. Enjoy the rest of your summer and the start of the school year!

Lila likes to put a purse around Duncan's neck and
declare that she's taking him shopping

Monday, July 28, 2014

Friends and Potstickers

There's an Asian market close to my home and I love poking around there and shopping for all kinds of ingredients. Some become instant favorites, such as jasmine rice, and others are more aspirational, like the packet of dumpling wrappers that ended up sitting in the freezer for several months.

I've made potstickers once before and blogged about it too- but I basically winged it with the filling. And I occasionally buy a bag of frozen vegetable dumplings to add to soup or to serve as an appetizer with a stir fry.

This time I got lucky- I mentioned the lonely dumpling wrappers in the freezer to my dear friend who happens to be Chinese American, born and raised in Queens, NY. She suggested that we get together and make dumplings together- and we got together yesterday for our dumpling party.

My friend showed up with her family and a large grocery sack of supplies. Then we got down to business- and here's the recipe she taught me. Her method is as simple as can be, the filling is raw and comes together in minutes.

The wrappers: I'm happy to make dumplings "from scratch" but I have no intentions of making the dumpling wrappers from scratch. We used 2 packs, each with 40 wrappers- one was Nasoya brand square wrappers (found next to the tofu in the refrigerated section of many supermarkets) and the other was Twin Dragon round wrappers that I found in the Asian store.

We used a large bowl to mix together the filling:

  • 1 package crumbled firm tofu (drain the tofu well before crumbling it)
  • 1 cup shredded carrots
  • 3-4 green onions, minced
  • 4-5 shiitake mushrooms, minced (these are found in most grocery stores)
  • 1/2 cup (or so) minced preserved turnips. These are very salty on their own but add wonderful flavor to the filling. They can be found in Asian stores.

We seasoned the filling with

  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
Wash your hands well, then get in there and mix the filling together well. 

Then it was time to make the dumplings. Set out a small bowl of water. Put a teaspoonful or two of filling in the middle of the wrapper. Dip a finger in the water, wet the edges of the wrapper and press them together firmly to make a semi-circle or triangle (depending on the shape of the wrapper). Keep making dumplings and setting them on a plate.

Cooking the potstickers: Then fire up the stove and heat up a wide and shallow saute pan. Add 2 tbsp. oil and place dumplings in a single layer in the hot pan. Once the bottom of the dumplings is browned, add 1/3 cup vegetable broth and cover the pan. 3-4 minutes later, the broth will have evaporated and the dumplings will be steamed through. Use a spatula or tongs to gently remove them.

Serve the potstickers right away with a dipping sauce:

  • Soy sauce
  • Honey
  • Ginger-garlic, minced
  • Scallions, minced

This was just so much fun- we were all crowded into the kitchen, I was making dumplings at a furious pace while my friend expertly cooked them, then as a new batch emerged, everyone grabbed them and gobbled them while trying not to burn their fingers. The potstickers were crisp and tender, and the taste was spot on.

We made 80 dumplings and managed to eat over 60 of them between 4 adults and 3 little girls. What a perfect way to spend the evening. I'll really glad to have learned my friend's family recipe and I have no doubt it will become a fun family tradition in our home too. 

Did you do anything fun this weekend?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Travel Diary and Nutty Cookies

The Fourth of July holiday was coming up and Lila had a whole week's summer break from daycare. I decided to take a few days off myself and we planned a week long mother-daughter vacation in Minneapolis with my sister and her family.

As we packed our bags, the excitement was mounting. It would be a vacation of many firsts.  The first trip where Lila would be really able to anticipate, understand and remember what was going on. The first time she would be visiting her aunt's home. A first visit to a theme park. The first time Lila would be away from her daddy and doggy for any length of time (those two stayed back to put in long hours at work and to catch up on sleep, respectively.)

And as simple as it was, flying out to see family for a week, every bit of the vacation was new and fresh and magical as I saw it through my toddler's eyes. Even the airport train zipping to our concourse through the massive and headache-inducing Atlanta airport made her squeal in delight. Weary travelers standing next to us could not help smiling at that.

The upper Midwest was cool and pleasant compared to Georgia at this time of year. Minneapolis in summer is dreamy- there's no trace of the (in)famous wintry shroud, the skies are blue, the lakes are bluer, there are fresh, green spaces everywhere you look.  Oh, and criss-crossing freeways everywhere too- I'm glad I don't have to drive in that city.

A wishing tree invites you to write a
wish and tie it onto a branch
Armed with a toddler each, my sister and I managed to squeeze in a lot of fun into one week. So here's my list of Top 6 things to do with a pair of toddlers in Minneapolis in summer!

The Diego Rescue Rider ride
at the Nick theme park
1. Go to the Nickelodeon Universe theme park inside the ridiculously huge Mall of America. Themes parks are so not my thing, Lila has no idea what Nickelodeon is, but this was a special experience and she thoroughly enjoyed it- even the fast and bumpy rides that left me queasy. They have a discount for toddlers on Tuesday.

2. Play in the sun and sand at Lake Calhoun's tiny beaches.

3. Go berry picking and later enjoy some fresh berries and ice cream.

4. Walk around the Centennial lake promenade, then rent a paddle boat and get up close to the ducklings.

5. Explore the huge indoor playground at Edinborough Park; this is a perfect rainy day activity.

Minnehaha Falls

6. Go see the spectacular Minneahaha Falls and dip your toes in the cold, gushing water of Minnehaha Creek.

Apart from these excursions, we enjoyed the things that are perpetually fun for the kids: walking to the local playgrounds, exploring the public library, coloring and painting, watching a few cartoons, swimming in the pool at the apartment complex, all while enjoying the excellent meals that my sister made.

Among all these child-centric activities, my sister and I did manage to make a trip to a huge fabric warehouse called SR Harris, packed floor to ceiling with fabrics and notions. I could have easily bankrupted myself there so it was a good thing Lila demanded that we leave after a couple of hours.

And we ate a hearty brunch at the French Meadow Cafe- their huevos rancheros were terrific.

I am such a homebody and loathe to travel, but I am so glad we went on this trip. It was a fantastic bonding experience all around.
A fountain overflowing with plants
at Minnehaha Falls
Before my trip, I gathered up some small gifts to take with me. I never know what to get my brother in law, so he got the food gift, which experience tells me is usually welcomed and relished. I'd already made biscotti, brownies and candy for them. At quite the last minute, I started looking for a recipe for something new to make and hit the jackpot with this cookie recipe from Alice Medrich. Her cookbook Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years- I won it in a giveaway in St. Louis.

The recipe I fortuitously found is called Right-Brain Nutty Butter Cookies. Medrich calls them right brain cookies because they are cookies for cooks, not bakers. You can get away with less-than-precise measurements and the recipe welcomes the tweaking and "little bit of this-and-that"ing that cooks tend to do. The basic recipe is for a shortbread and there are no eggs involved. The entire cookie dough comes together in a couple of minutes in a food processor. The cookie is dead easy to make and requires basic pantry ingredients.

But do plan ahead- Medrich notes that the cookies are significantly better if you make and refrigerate the dough 2 days prior to baking. And the cookies themselves taste better the day after they are baked, they last for a month in an airtight container. How perfect to take along on a trip!

I'll tell you exactly how I made this batch of cookies. Look for Medrich's excellent book for the detailed recipe and all the variations. She's a truly gifted dessert chef and I should use this book more.

Nutty Butter Cookies
(Adapted from Alice Medrich's Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts)

1. Start with 1 box deluxe mixed nuts (8.75 oz). These have cashews, almonds, brazil nut, hazelnuts and pecans, they come roasted and salted in a small canister in the snack aisle of the supermarket.

2. Pulse the nuts (all the contents of the box) in a food processor to a coarse chop. Dump them out and set them aside.

3. To the now-empty processor bowl, add and pulse to mix:
1 cup + 1 tbsp. flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt (or not, if nuts were well-salted)

4. Add 1 stick (8 tbsp.) butter (cut in chunks and softened beforehand) and 2 tsp. vanilla extract. Process until a cookie dough forms.

5. Pulse in the chopped nuts.

6. Divide the dough onto two pieces of plastic wrap and pat into 2 logs. Wrap and refrigerate for 2 days.

7. Preheat oven to 350F. Slice the log into 1/4 inch thick cookies and bake on parchment lined sheets for 12-14 minutes. Cool on the sheet. Store cooled cookies in an airtight container.

These cookies were a hit. My brother in law said they reminded him of cookies from Karachi bakery, which is apparently a celebrated bakery in Hyderabad. In any case, they are rich, tender morsels, slightly sweet and pretty much guaranteed to please. I'm glad to have one more food gift in my repertoire.

Have you been traveling this summer? 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The List: June 2014

If I had to capture June in one phrase, I would say it went swimmingly for me. Quite literally. After swimming every summer as a child, and then not swimming at all for nearly 2 decades, I got back into the pool. It is such a relief to find some physical activity that I actually enjoy. The rest of the family has been enjoying water as well- Lila started toddler swim lessons and we discovered splash playgrounds close to home- these are playgrounds fitted with sprinklers and buckets pouring water and other such water play. A wonderful way to be outside and yet be able to cool off.

Eating the fruits (veggies/herbs etc.) of other people's labors! A friend gave a giant bunch of mustard greens from her garden; it went into saag paneer. Another gave me a huge bouquet of basil and it became walnut pesto. And yesterday someone gave me a bag of baby pattypan squash. Ah, the benefits of cultivating friends who cultivate gardens ;)

 This is the very best thing I ate all month: tomato sandwiches. These are a Southern thing. Soft sliced bread spread with mayo, slices of tomatoes and sweet Vidalia onions, a shower of salt and pepper. I can't believe that something so simple can taste this good. Actually, I can.

Another spectacular meal was a Shavuot celebration with our Israeli friends: savory pastries called bourekas, spinach pie, strawberry salad, carrot salad, and sangria to wash everything down.

Father's Day was celebrated with a big stack of blueberry pancakes!


Image: Goodreads

 Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin, she of Home Cooking fame. A talented storyteller who died too young. Family Happiness is a contemplative family drama, a personality profile of a dutiful and people-pleasing wife and mother whose world turns upside down when she slips into an extramarital affair. "Family life is deflective: it gives everybody something to do. It absorbs sadness and sops up loneliness. It provides work, company and entertainment. It makes tasks for idle hands and allows an anxious spirit to hide in its capacious bosom."


Image: Goodreads

 The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. This work of non fiction was the best book I read all month- dense and technical but very readable and insightful.

And the books Lila has enjoyed this month...

Fun Dog, Sun Dog by Deborah Heiligman. This one has the perfect seasonal combination of sun, beach, kid and dog- a sweet story with rhyming words.

 Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman. A baby bird hatches from the egg while its mother is away looking for food; it embarks on an adventure, eager to find her and see her for the first time.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems. A whacky story about a pigeon who begs and wheedles to be allowed to drive an unattended bus. This one led to many questions as Lila looked at the expressive drawings. "Is the pigeon upsetted?", she wanted to know.

 The favorite book by far this month was Children Just Like Me by Barnabas and Anabel Kindersley. Lila got this book as a new baby when V's boss' wife came to see her. It sat on the shelf for nearly 3 years waiting for her to grow up just a little bit. Now she wants to read "kids book" for hours (!) every day.

The book is the result of an extraordinary journey sponsored by UNICEF where the authors traveled to dozens of countries and compiled this book depicting the everyday lives of children everywhere- what they wear, eat, where they go to school, what they call their mom and dad, how they write their name. It is rich is details, diverse and inclusive, touching and wonderful in every way. My only quibble is that the book was published in the mid-90s, and since 2 decades have passed, it is time for a new updated edition.

Nevertheless, I suspect that Children Just Like Me will be relevant for Lila for years to come because there are so many details to discover and discuss.

Making butterfly embellishment for plain store bought summer tops. The inspiration came from here.

Laughing at toddler conversations...

Lila: Daddy, I need to have a tantrum.
V: Can you wait till after we've brushed your teeth?
Lila: OK.

Lila (in a public restroom): It smells like Dunkie in here.
Dunkie is not amused.
I have feelings, you know
How was June for you- what have you been eating, reading, watching, playing, making? Tell me everything!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Standardized Biryani Recipe

Biryani was a Sunday Special in my parents' home. It was a labor of love- my mother spent hours putting together the layers of Basmati rice, curry, nuts and fried onions potatoes all bathed in aromatic, warm spices. Every pot and pan, every square inch of counter space in the kitchen seemed to be involved in the process. The result was something pretty special, I can tell you.

But no matter how much I love to cook, and how irresistible the result, elaborate recipes just aren't my thing. Instead, my own streamlined biryani recipe has been evolving over the years- three different versions have made their way to the blog.

Here's the latest version, standardized to my current kitchen and my current preferences. I don't care too much about what is authentic and what it is not- I just do what works for me. There are still several steps but with practice, I can trot out a pan of biryani quite efficiently, and every time it has been a hit, both with people who love Indian food and with those new to Indian food. Also, this is a very beginner- friendly recipe (believe it or not). I've tried to write down as many details as I can.

So take the plunge and make a pan of biryani with me! It is an excellent weekend project if you're attempting it for the first time.

My Biryani Formula

The Pan: This recipe is designed for my beloved 9 x 13 Pyrex baking dish (a very common and versatile baking pan size in US kitchens). It is nice to bake and serve in the same pan. The quantity is enough for 8 main servings. And it will serve many more people if it is one of several dishes being served.

Alternatively, if I am taking a dish to a potluck but also want to leave behind some biryani for the rest of the family's dinner, I split the ingredients between two smaller baking dishes: one 11 x 7 pan and one 8 x 8 pan.

Grease the baking dish(es) with some oil/ghee/butter and set aside.

The Layers:

1. Rice: Rinse 2.5 rice-cup measures Jasmine rice. (A rice cooker comes with a plastic measure which is about 3/4 cup of a standard American cup. So this comes to a little less than 2 standard cups of rice). Soak for 15 minutes, then add 2 tsp. salt and water to the 2-level mark and cook in the rice cooker (adding a little less water keeps the rice from getting too soggy). After the rice is cooked, stir in 1 tbsp. ghee and leave the rice uncovered to cool down.

Basmati rice is the most popular choice for biryani but I like Jasmine rice even better. Use brown rice if you prefer, or even another grain altogether- like quinoa. Cook the grains in a rice cooker or stove top. 

2. Roasted vegetables: Preheat the oven to 425F. On a standard baking sheet (18 x 13 inches), mix bite-size chopped vegetables (enough to fill the sheet in a single layer), 2 tbsp. olive oil and salt and pepper. Bake for 15-18 minutes (on convection setting) or 25-30 minutes (standard setting) or until the veggies are tender and lightly browned.  Set aside.

I use an entire baking sheet's worth of roasted veggies in this recipe resulting in a very high ratio of vegetables to rice, just the way I like it. What vegetables to use? I typically use 1/3 head of cauliflower, 2 carrots, 2 zucchini, 1 bell pepper. But I'll change it up and use anything that I have on hand or whatever's on sale/in season, like broccoli, summer squash, sweet potato, green beans etc. 

3. Curry: 

  1. In a pan, heat 1 tbsp. oil
  2. Saute 2 sliced onions until caramelized. 
  3. Add 1 heaped tbsp. ginger garlic paste, 1 tsp. turmeric, 1 tsp. salt, and biryani masala powder to taste. Stir for a few seconds.
  4. Add 1.5 cups tomato puree and 1/4 cup cashew/almond powder. Simmer for 5 minutes. 
  5. Turn off heat and stir in 1/2 tsp garam masala and a handful of minced cilantro and mint leaves if you like.

I like Shaan brand Memoni biryani masala powder and I use 1 tbsp for a mild spice and up to 3 tbsp to make it more spicy. Keep in mind that this is the only component of the dish that has spice. 

An alternative is to buy Parampara brand biryani masala paste (I have no affiliation with any of these brands; they are just what I have used and liked) and to use that in place of everything in step 3- an easy short-cut.

4. The "main" ingredient: This is another hearty ingredient. Choose from any one of these to make egg biryani/ paneer biryani/ chickpea biryani and so on.
Hard-boiled eggs: Boil 6 eggs, peel and quarter.
Paneer: Cut a block of paneer into bite size pieces and pan fry until lightly browned.
Chickpeas: Drain and rinse a can of chickpeas. Or soak and cook a cup of dried chickpeas.
Veggie meatballs: I like the meatless meatballs from Trader Joe's- thaw them first.
  Other options are to make your own koftas or to use tofu/seitan.

5. Finally, what gives the biryani its characteristic flavor is crispy fried onions. I buy cans of fried onions (the ones used for green bean casserole) at the grocery store. You can of course make your own at home.

Assembly and Baking

In the greased casserole, add ingredients and pat down in this order:

  • 2/3 of the cooked rice
  • All of the curry
  • All of the roasted vegetables
  • All of the main ingredient of choice
  • The rest of the rice
  • A generous handful of fried onions
Cover with foil and bake at 350F for 45 minutes. Enjoy!


  • If you don't own an oven, the biryani is easily assembled in a large pot/pan (or two) and finished on the stove-top. Saute the veggies instead of roasting them. 
  • Multi-tasking: I usually get the rice started first. Then I start the veggies in the oven. While both are cooking, I make the curry. While all three cool down, I prep the "main" ingredient. 
  • Make-ahead: The biryani can be assembled up to 24 hours ahead of time. Just bake and serve. 
  • Leftovers reheat beautifully and in fact the biryani tastes even better the next day.